A breed apart: the Stasi man who outed himself

Günter Bohnsack, a disinformation officer, anticipated the collapse of East Germany and used his family's allotment to destroy thousands of files. Neither his friends nor his enemies thanked him, Anna Funder found
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I walk around to pick up my last Stasi man. In his street new tramlines are being laid, lengths of steel are strewn like liquorice down the median strip. It's lunchtime and the workers are nowhere to be seen. I ring the buzzer where it says "Bohnsack". A man comes out putting on a smart tan overcoat. He's tall and slightly stooped, thickset through the chest. His face is pleasant, with receding hair and full cheeks. He looks me straight in the eye and smiles a warm smile.

I walk around to pick up my last Stasi man. In his street new tramlines are being laid, lengths of steel are strewn like liquorice down the median strip. It's lunchtime and the workers are nowhere to be seen. I ring the buzzer where it says "Bohnsack". A man comes out putting on a smart tan overcoat. He's tall and slightly stooped, thickset through the chest. His face is pleasant, with receding hair and full cheeks. He looks me straight in the eye and smiles a warm smile.

"Let's go to my local," he says.

The pub is a traditional Berlin Kneipe. It has a bar in dark wood with mirrors behind it, booth seats and lacy white curtains to shield people from the street. When a stranger enters, the hum of conversation breaks. Here though, when the regulars see Herr Bohnsack, they nod. The publican smiles like a brother. "How are we?" he asks, rubbing his hands together. "What it'll be today then?"

"I'll have a wheat beer and a Korn," he says, "and you?" It's early. I order a beer and forgo the schnapps.

Günter Bohnsack's voice is deep and slightly slurred, like a person with ill-fitting crowns, or a man who has been drinking. He is 57 years old, and the only Stasi man I have ever met who outed himself. A lieutenant colonel, he worked in one of the most secret divisions of the overseas spy service, the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA). Herr Bohnsack was in Division X, responsible, as he put it on the phone to me, for "disinformation and psychological warfare against the West". The HVA was the overseas espionage service of the Stasi. Its director, Markus Wolf, the son of a Jewish doctor and playwright, is intelligent and urbane, and was the model, apparently, for John le Carré's spymaster Karla.Wolf's HVA was subject to its minister, Mielke.

Wolf and his men always saw themselves as a breed apart. Although they were organised according to military rank like the rest of the Firm, they wore suits instead of uniforms, were highly educated and enjoyed a privileged existence. "Because we were responsible for the West," Herr Bohnsack explained to me, "we could travel and we were quite different. Our diplomats could speak languages and were cultivated. We all scorned Mielke; we had our Wolf, the tall, elegant intellectual."

Herr Bohnsack trained as a journalist and worked for 26 years in disinformation. Much of Division X's work was directed against West Germany. It collected sensitive or secret information from agents in the West and leaked it to cause harm; it manufactured documents and spliced together recordings of conversations that never took place to damage persons in the public sphere; and it spread rumours. Division X men fed "coups" to Western journalists about the Nazi past of West German politicians; it funded left-wing publications and it managed, at least in one instance, to exert an extraordinary influence over the political process in West Germany. In 1972, the Social Democrat head of the West German government, Willy Brandt, faced a vote of no-confidence. Division X bribed one and possibly two backbenchers to keep him in power.

Colonel Rolf Wagenbreth, the head of Division X, described its work as "an attempt to turn the wheels of history". Herr Bohnsack starts with a joke. "The USA, the Soviet Union and the GDR want to raise the Titanic," he says. "The USA wants the jewels presumed to be in the safe, the Soviets are after the state-of-the-art technology; and the GDR" - he downs his Korn for dramatic pause - "the GDR wants the band that played as it went down."

We laugh.

"Were there Mielke jokes?"

"Yes, lots," he says. "But the worst Mielke ones weren't jokes; they were true." Herr Bohnsack was invited to the party the Stasi threw to celebrate the 40 years of the GDR. It was 3 October 1989, the height of the unrest. "There were about 2,000 people at the party," he says. "Mielke made his entrance" - he raises one arm behind his ear and does a two-fingered walk through the air - "down some stairs in the corner surrounded by his generals: like a ghost, or the god in the machine."

Mielke made a speech. "For four hours he spoke. Every now and then he gave a rallying cry. 'And just remember Comrades: the most important thing you have is power! Hang on to power at all costs! Without it, you are nothing!' He didn't mention the protests and the fact that the Soviets were backing away, but it was clear he must, at some level, have felt the end coming..."

When Mielke finished there was a banquet: grapes, and chicken drumsticks and melon and stone fruits, 'things that we never had in the GDR and that were truly exquisite, amazing delicacies to us". But just as they were about to tuck in, Mielke would pick up the microphone to say "a few more idiotic words" and everyone would have to put their drumsticks and bunches of grapes back down on their plates until he was done. He would finish up by saying " Guten Appetit", and the men would start to eat, but moments later he'd grab the microphone again and they would have to put it all down once more. "It went on and on," Herr Bohnsack says. "The occasion was insane."

A t Christmas 1989, from his telling of it, events bloomed into full-scale, fast-forward farce. Herr Bohnsack's entire division was ordered to stay at home so as not to provoke the demonstrators, and to be near the phone. At 3 am they would receive a call ordering them to drive to Normannenstrasse, parking some way away so the demonstrators wouldn't know the buildings were occupied, and to enter by a rear door. When they reached their offices, all the lights would be out. They were ordered to don camouflage combat gear - "like the foreign legion in the jungle" - and then to kit themselves out with cooking equipment and cutlery, a spade, a protective suit in the event of chemical warfare, a blanket, toothpaste and brush, and ammunition. They were each issued with a pistol and a machine-gun. The whole operation was timed.

"What would you do then?" I ask.

"We would lie down on our desks and sleep. The generals upstairs on the ninth floor were simulating a war situation. One would come down and wake us up with a message - say, that an American sub has been sighted off Turkey. Or, the American B52s are on stand-by. Then at 5 am we'd get worse news - maybe that a Russian sub had been taken off Norway. They were pretending that World War Three had broken out."

"What could you do?"

"Nothing: we slept some more."

At 7 am they would get an order to go into the field. "We'd play war for a day, stand around, and shoot the cardboard figures that popped up out of the grass. Everyone was there - highly intelligent specialists who could speak Arabic and goodness knows what - and we were all reduced to playing soldiers." By the end of 1989 they were doing this every single week. "And we knew the GDR was lost," he says, "so it was a circus."

Herr Bohnsack's greatest fear was that he and the others would be ordered to shoot the demonstrators outside their building. During the exercises they were told that the enemy had infiltrated the country and was inciting the East Germans against them. At the end Mielke was more direct. He told them that they - he meant the people - were the enemy. He said: "It's them or us.'"

"For me," Herr Bohnsack says, "that was the most terrifying thing: that instead of shooting cardboard figures we'd have to shoot our own people. And we knew, just like under Hitler, that if we refused we'd be taken off and shot ourselves."

There was another fear too. Mielke had also told his men: "if we lose, they'll string us all up". The atmosphere was hysterical. Herr Bohnsack had been Markus Wolf's contact man between the Stasi and the secret services in Hungary, Moscow, Prague and Warsaw. "Our man in Budapest had told me that in the drama of '56 his people were hanged in the trees outside their offices. He said to me: 'If someone points you out, five minutes later you'll be swinging.' "

Herr Bohnsack runs his hand over his head again. "Thank God it didn't come to that," he says. He explains that by the time the demonstrators really got going in Berlin - and it was later there than in Leipzig and elsewhere - Mielke had already stood down. And he had been there so long the generals simply did not know how to give any orders on their own. They could not seize control. "And this is what saved us," Herr Bohnsack says, shaking his large head, "us and the people".

Somehow, back in September, it became clear to Herr Bohnsack that the files would have to be destroyed. He told his boss he was going to start shredding. "It is not allowed!" the boss said. "There is no order!"

"But," Herr Bohnsack says, "I just drove my car into the yard and got the files out of the cabinets. There were metres and metres of them, agents' key files, films, reports - and I drove to our garden 100km away from Berlin."

The family had an old baker's oven on its holiday plot. And then, "totally privately and personally, without any permission and without any command", he says, "I destroyed everything, all day long." There was so much paper to burn the oven nearly collapsed. A cloud of black smoke hung over him. Herr Bohnsack stood there for three days, feeding the files into the fire.

Herr Bohnsack orders another beer, another Korn and a coffee. I say I'm fine for the moment.

Herr Bohnsack smiles gently at me. "You, no?" he says. "You are utterly without need?" I glimpse beneath the genial drinker a man who was the match of anyone, East or West.

The smoke attracted attention. Bohnsack's neighbour in the country, he says, was a hopeless soak. "But of course even he had a suspicion about where I worked. We call it the Stallgeruch (the smell of the sty). He used to lean over the fence and slur abuse at me: 'Old Shiny Bum' and 'SED' and all kinds of insults.

"He was there again, drunk as usual, while I was burning it all up. And as the smoke passed over his house he began singing the anthem of the citizens' rights movement, Wir sind das Volk. He knew exactly what I was doing. It was grotesque really," Herr Bohnsack chuckles, "his aria to accompany my burning pyre."

Herr Bohnsack looks around him. "Here," he says, "I was always a regular. I had my spot at the bar. I have lived around the corner for 38 years. Before 1989 I was always just 'Günter - hello, how's it going'.

P eople didn't know what I did, but of course they had their suspicions. Sometimes I'd come straight from work in a tie and a stylish overcoat with a briefcase and there'd be a rumble through the pub of 'doesn't he look fine'." They would have a sniff as much as to say something's not quite right here.' He pinches his nose between forefinger and thumb.

The Wall fell on the 9th of November 1989. The first time I came in here afterwards, I think it was the 15th. A drunken man was at the front bar and when he saw me he swivelled around slowly, pointed at me and screamed, 'Stasi out!' Everyone shut up and turned to have a look at me. They all thought the same as he, or at least half of them. I couldn't move.

I said to the publican: 'What do they want from me? I can't stand here before you all and undo it, take it all back.' "

Herr Bohnsack kept coming back. It took nearly three years until no one was aggressive any more. "But there were no hangings or attempts or anything. In fact I was relieved, really, that the people reacted so sensibly."

But the drinkers were not the only public. Herr Bohnsack got wind that a magazine, Die Linke, had managed to obtain a disk containing the names of the top-paid 20,000 Stasi employees and was about to publish it. He knew everyone would read it, find his name and address on the list and feel whatever they would feel - contempt, hatred, or self-righteousness.

He knew there was only one thing for him to do. "I would out myself before I was outed." He called Der Spiegel, the famous West German news magazine, and arranged to tell them everything. "I really pulled my pants down, as they say," he says.

"When I got the edition in my hand I felt sick. There was a photo and everything. I mean, when you are silent and you lie for 26 years and then all of a sudden you see yourself in a magazine, it was really..." He pauses again. "I have to say it was a bit strange for me here," he pats his heart.

Hardly any of his former colleagues will talk about what they used to do. It is almost a sort of omerta, a code of honour that rules them. He tells me that they still meet in groups according to rank, or at birthdays and funerals. A general who remains on speaking terms with him told him that at a recent 70th birthday, proceedings were run like a divisional meeting from the old days. There was an agenda and the men went through it item by item. It consisted mainly of passing around clippings or reporting on television programs against the Stasi. It was as if the old Stasi leaders here have now found a new enemy: the media.

And Herr Bohnsack is a traitor because he went to them. After he outed himself he got death threats over the phone. "You arsehole, how low can you go, and these sorts of things," he says. The calls have stopped now.

"I was never frightened," Herr Bohnsack says. "I mean I used to check my car to see if it had been tampered with, but there's not much point doing that because if they're any good they do it so as you can't tell."

I ask him who his friends are now.

"Well, I have none," he says, nodding to the publican for more. He looks at me with shiny, anaesthetised eyes. "I've fallen between two stools, you might say."

Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, Granta, £7.99.